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Food Insecurity and Breast Cancer

Melanie McCulley, MS, BCC, HHP

Support Services Manager at To Life!

We are entering a season of holidays that traditionally involve celebrations with food, including Thanksgiving. For a growing number of individuals, however, there won’t be tables laden with food. Thanksgiving will be just another day struggling for enough to eat or enough healthy food. A person who is food insecure may not be physically hungry, though that can be an outcome. Their circumstances mean they don’t get enough food to properly fuel the body and mind, or they can’t access fresh foods and their nutrients due to finances, living in areas without nearby stores that carry fresh foods, a lack of transportation and a support system, advanced age, illness or disability. A person can fill up on rice, for example, and not feel hunger sensations, but that doesn’t mean their body isn’t starving for nutrients.

It’s estimated that 1 in 7 Americans is food insecure. According to a CNN report, in July of 2020, an estimated 37.2 million Americans reported food insecurity prior to the pandemic, and Feeding America projects a 46% increase to over 54 million by summer 2021. This increase is exacerbated by layoffs, furloughs, the closure of neighborhood markets and the suspension or reduction of some services-- including mass transportation-- due to COVID-19.

Individuals in cancer treatment are among the populations vulnerable to food insecurity, including due to the cost of insurance and out-of-pocket medical and transportation expenses, and lost wages if too ill to work. Simply accessing and preparing nutritious food can be difficult for someone going through treatment if they live alone, don’t have a support system, and feel too ill to grocery shop or prepare meals regularly.

In food insecure families, women routinely report skipping meals or giving the most nutritious food to other family members. With 1 in 8 women diagnosed with breast cancer, statistically there is a significant number also experiencing food insecurity. This can negatively impact their breast cancer and recurrence risk, as well as their ability to cope with and heal from surgery and treatment. Food insecurity also makes it difficult to have the energy to work full time, during portions of treatment, further impacting individuals and families economically. Food insecurity can also contribute to incomplete treatment, worse health results, and racial and economic disparity in cancer outcomes.

Nutrition is a critical part of health and healing, so it’s vital that anyone going through cancer treatment, surgery, and recovery have consistent access to nutritious food, including fresh fruits and vegetables. These provide nutrients and antioxidants necessary for energy and healthy cell regeneration which supports the immune system. This is also important for children, including those in families with a higher lifetime risk for breast cancer. Evidence continues to mount that diet can be a significant factor in breast cancer risk. Children can, therefore, be at an increased lifetime risk if they grow up primarily eating low nutrient food, do not get enough food to fuel their body’s optimal development, eat inexpensive high calorie foods more likely to contribute to obesity exposing them to more estrogen and at an earlier age, and eat foods with artificial ingredients and ingredients or packaging containing hormones or endocrine disrupters.

In response to the level of food insecurity, the charitable food community of services such as food banks, pantries, soup kitchens, community gardens, and feeding programs, are working together to meet the needs of the increasing number of individuals and families forced to choose between such priorities
as medicine and food, or shelter and food, or transportation (including to work) and food. The 2014 study, Hunger in America, found that 66% of American households had to choose between food and medical care.

If you need assistance, you may find the following resources of value, though this is not an exhaustive list:

Additionally, Albany Public Library announced that their Community and Services Support Specialist is now offering expanded services for people struggling with food insecurity, and Albany currently has three community fridges (also known as free food fridges). These refrigerators are located outside where they are accessible 24 hours. They are stocked with fresh items like meals prepared by participating restaurants, milk, eggs, yogurt, fresh fruit, vegetables, and more.

Fridges are currently located at:
• 8 Elm Street, outside of the Free School

• 245 Lark Street at In Our Own Voices

• 488 Broadway at Albany Center Gallery Cancer is challenging enough, without adding insufficient nutrition, so please seek assistance.

There are many excellent resources and compassionate advocates who can connect you with the proper services. Many people are struggling, through no fault of their own, and it’s imperative to get the proper nutrition to get healthy and stay healthy for ourselves and our families. When you feel better, and are food secure, you can pay it forward.